Imperfect Perfect – A Journey Through The “Uncanny Valley”

Posted on by Dave

Bea Harper

With the release of Quantic Dream’s latest offering “Beyond: Two Souls” featuring the acting talents of Ellen Page and the Green Goblin himself Willem Dafoe, those who have played the game have said that while it’s GOOD, there is something about it they are uncertain about, but they feel they can’t put their finger on it. The studio has made nothing but solid and quality fare such as the acclaimed “Heavy Rain” which players enjoy due to the immersive character-driven experience of the game plus the amazing voice acting and story that wasn’t afraid to push boundaries. It earned controversy, but it also provoked countless discussions and encouraged discourse. Considering gamers were playing as just a bunch of carefully rendered polygons, they were invested in what happened to these polygons because they had dimension, not because of how astounding the graphics were.

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“Beyond: Two Souls” follows very much in the same vein as “Heavy Rain”, but with a further emphasis placed on the appearance of the characters of Jodie and Dawkins (voiced and performed by Page and Dafoe respectively). Going back to what I was saying earlier about why “Beyond” has earned it’s muddled reputation, sure, it could come down to that the story itself it muddled and the inherent silliness of the plot, but I PERSONALLY feel that the real fault comes from the fact you are watching Ellen Page look like a digital Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe look like a digital Willem Dafoe. This is not a crap about the actors, trust me, but I feel that their characters look EXACTLY like them where it may as well look like a movie both could act in. Despite the fact Page’s character is at one point shown as a child, she still looks the way Page would have done at that age. It’s uncanny, and to be perfectly frank, it’s a little disconcerting.

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Technology has made many dramatic leaps and bounds over time, and every year we are presented with the latest nifty doo-dad that is seemingly able to do everything except… actually they CAN do everything. Look at what we have seen or heard of- the untold power of the Internet, healing our illnesses, making the foods we eat, the cars we drive, the products we use, robots to act as surrogate friends (Teddy Ruxpin, anyone?) and even lovers. Making things that help us live is one thing, but for them to become part a social circle, to have personal, intimate connections… that’s alarming. When “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” came out, I can guarantee nobody remembered the story, but were more than perfectly familiar with the animation that was used. It was one of the most ground-breaking cinematic releases in history completely due to the fact nobody had seen such photorealistic graphics before- if you watch the trailer for the film now, you would think that it may not be so much, but until that point, animation didn’t consider absolute realism but had a sense of fantasy about it. Characters looked like the sorts of characters you would find in a comic book, or a video game, particularly female characters. I find it equally amusing and sad that Aki Ross (the female lead in the “Final Fantasy” film) was included as one of the sexiest women in the world by Maxim… fiiiiigurrrres…

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Jodie and Dawkins look like the actors who voice and mo-cap them pretty much down to the tee. Jodie possesses Page’s unique and petite features while Dawkins is Dafoe’s eerie yet fascinating to look at reflection. There is no alternations of face or physiology (well okay, maybe a little for a scene that features a nude Jodie- sorry boys, Page wasn’t ACTUALLY naked and this doesn’t COUNT as an actress naked), but the fact these characters were deliberately made to resemble their characters is perhaps what made people feel a little off about the game. They were looking at people who pretty much ARE real, not necessarily folks they know, but are very familiar with. When you were watching an actual movie, the audience may know who that actor is, but the actor is playing a role, they are putting on an act to suspend belief. Now with a game, to play as Ellen Page may of course be a wonderful opportunity, but that’s the thing- you aren’t playing a character, you are playing as Page. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s wonderful to see a game that is willing to push gender and appearance boundaries by making the player assume the role of a character who defies the physical convention, but I also feel with this nearly realistic look, it’s confronting.

Masahiro Mori coined the term “The Uncanny Valley” based on a notion in robotics  which maintains that when human features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” aspect refers to the dip in a hypothetical graph of the comfort level of humans as subjects move toward a healthy, natural human likeness described in a function of a subject’s aesthetic acceptability. Games are unnatural because they are a fantasy. They are a fantastical means of escaping everyday life, which is why folks love their games. They get to be Lara Croft, Duke Nukem for a few hours, they get to live an exciting, however ridiculous life because it gives a sense of pleasure and it’s that digital ridiculousness that makes them fun. I’m not going to speak about how male and female characters are portrayed because that is a completely different argument, but playing Lara Croft is vastly different to playing somebody who looks EXACTLY like Ellen Page and sounds like her because it IS her. There is no disconnect between character and actor, not the disconnect gamers feel they need in order to immerse themselves in a game. I feel if they perhaps made Jodie and Dawkins look too perfect, too real. The Uncanny Valley refers to how complete perfection scares us as human beings because it doesn’t look NATURAL, well, natural to us anyway. Seeing something so flawless and blameless makes humans feel insecure and distrustful, despite any good intentions the subject may have. So why, do I ask, that when (in hyperbole, but it’s a valid example nonetheless) a celebrity is described as “perfect”, a “god’ or “goddess” we don’t feel afraid? If they really were that perfect, we would have shunned them, band against them for looking so “perfect”. In that context, that word is heavily misappropriated because perfection means something to be afraid of because it’s greater than us, something that threatens our state of being. Were say Ryan Gosling or Scarlett Johannson truly that perfect, we wouldn’t be so admiring of them, wanting to be them, dare I say, I think we would have hunted them down and skinned them. Had those two folks not been exposed to us by the masses and hyped up by the media, I guarantee we wouldn’t have given them a second look if they weren’t air-brushed, trained to the max and made up like dolls. By seeing something imperfect, something natural to us, we respond positively to it. When gossip rags harp on about how such and such actress has put on a pound or two, people read it because they like seeing that veneer of “perfection” being torn down to expose them as the flawed human beings they actually are. We was to see perfection fail because it’s not a part of who we are, we look for chinks in the armour, weak spots to exploit because it means dragging that so-called subject down with the rest of us. Imperfection to us is perfection because it’s relatable- when I see a television interview that has a host sing his or her praises about their next guest, a part of me wants to say “You do know they piss, fart, get sick and suffer other bodily functions like the rest of us, right?”. Granted, they get MONEY for worshiping at this proverbial altar, but I find that how we define perfection is not perfect at all- a terrible, general ideal, social conditioning and pressure, yes, but perfection? No. I have a feeling that if human beings and other living things were meant to be perfect, we wouldn’t look the way we are or do the things we do. We may not have even existed if we were designed to be perfect. Society can continue to manufacture pitch-perfect images and perpetuate all types of fantastical diets, make-ups and all of that guff, but once again, were human beings meant to be perfect in the true sense of the word, we wouldn’t NEED that. Does that stop us from wanting it though? Of course not, but I just wish that humans in general didn’t feel the need to conform to what others feel entitled to JUST because that is what they want. Am I trying to preach a new world order? I wouldn’t say that, but next time you look at somebody or something attractive, think twice before regaling them as “perfect”- they are just like you and me and victims of a society that demands an unattainable standard that shouldn’t be a part of any of our lives. That being said, I do like movies and video games, but if we can perhaps try to stay away from making completely photo-real features, that would be most preferable because in case aliens still want to investigate Earth, I don’t want them to think “Ugh, losers.” when they come across a nudie picture of Aki Ross in a bikini.

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